The Western Air Temple
In a way this is the episode that the show has been building towards. Even though the conclusion to Avatar is still half a season down the road, the introduction of Zuko to Team Avatar is the fulfillment of an idea brought up all the way back in “The Blue Spirit.” So if “The Western Air Temple” is another regrouping and transitory entry like the season three premiere, it’s also a staggering recounting of the show’s entire history. Considering every moment that The Gaang has had with Zuko, and how the process of switching sides is actually incredibly difficult even if it’s ta classic part of this type of storytelling.
As Team Avatar goes to lick their wounds at the titular location, they try to reformulate a plan to counter Ozai. They settle on continuing with the original concept, having Aang master all the elements and challenge The Firelord. One big problem remains. Who’s going to teach Aang firebending? Jeong Jeong appears to be long gone, and now things are going south fast. But hope (?) arrives in the form of Zuko who awkwardly reintroduces himself to the group. He offers first to teach Aang, and then when Team Avatar rejects him, as a prisoner that they can keep an eye on.
However months of attack and betrayal has soured most of The Gaang on Zuko’s appearance, so they cast him off back into the woods. Toph has a different view. Since she joined the group further down the line the only real direct contact she’s had with Zuko was in “The Chase,” this combined with her positive interactions with Iroh, make her sympathetic to Zuko’s pleas for admittance. The rest of The Gaang are unmoved by her arguments, so she decides to strike out and talk to Zuko on her own.
Unfortunately she stumbles upon him in the middle of the night, and he attacks her without thinking, burning her feet. This once again puts the whole group of heroes against Zuko. The only thing that really turns it around is when Combustion Man appears, and Zuko swings in at the last moment to save Team Avatar and give them the time to retaliate. So Sokka gets one good toss of his boomerang and Combustion Man goes down in a blaze.
This selfless act allows Zuko to enter the team, but on conditions. Katara has got her eye trained on the prince, and if he slips up, he’s done.
What’s fascinating about “The Western Air Temple” is that it’s a momentous entry in the series, but a relatively subdued one as well. After all the tension and build up of “The Crossroads of Destiny” and “The Day of Black Sun” one would expect that Zuko’s changing of allegiances would be met by riotous fanfare, instead we get a consternated laugh. This mild, compacted, self-contained, and indeed comedic tone is what really sells the flipping of sides though. “The Western Air Temple,” is a series of awkward conversations and circular monologues, characters trying to talk others and themselves into proper action. I don’t have the numbers in front of me, but this could well be the most dialog heavy entry into the series.
This fumbling attempt by everyone to enter a new status quo is what makes the story here so iconic and memorable. Zuko is a character we’re used to yelling what he wants and boldly proclaiming his conflicted emotions. But here he stumbles and shuffles through every word that comes out of his mouth. It’s arguably Basco’s best performance as the character, bringing warm humor and confusion to each syllable uttered. Humbling a character to the point of acceptance by our heroes.
Which of course is why this episode is one of the high point comedic entries in the show, almost all of it born from these weird talks. It’s not just that Zuko introduces himself with a tremulous “Hello, Zuko here,” or goes on extended riffs of what his family might tell him, it’s that these humorous outbursts are sure sign of how’s he’s changed over the years.
In brief flashbacks before his banishment we see the single minded teen that the show introduced to us in the premiere. He’s pigheaded, angry, and unwilling to take good advice. Strip those elements out and we have a person who’s awkward and struggles to communicate. It’s blunt, but an excellent demonstration how these drastic changes occurred to the same person. It’s not going to be easy to shed his previous personality, but his good faith effort is what ultimately wins to the side of our heroes.
This structure also does a much better job at entertaining the regrouping narrative explored “The Awakening.” We once again find our heroes on the outs, but there’s a concerted effort to chew through the new problems in front of them. Aang might be a little flighty, but he has to come to terms with the current situation, and the talkiness of the episode show’s that considering the fate of the world does not need to be proclaimed in grand and stupid gestures. Indeed the whole back half of the season feels a lot like the first half, but with a clearer focus and a greater understanding of how to pace its story.
So now we have Zuko on board, and with the Fire Prince fighting for our heroes there’s a whole new world of possibilities to be explored.
Odds and Ends
- “Zuko, you have to look within yourself to save yourself from your other self. Only then will your true self, reveal itself.”
- Even though they don’t really do anything, I love that The Duke, Teo, and Haru are with the team. It adds a nice brush of continuity to these minor side players.
- Toph’s retort of, “If it’s important I’ll find out.” is a great way to remind the audience that some of our heroes have differing perspectives on the events that went down.
- Smartly, rescuing Appa is kind of what allows Zuko entrance to the team. Iroh does give good advice.
- According the wiki this episode was given a working title of “Zuko’s Cool” to throw off the scent of people who leaking info about the show.
- Once again we confront the fluctuating morality of the show. Sokka does kill Combustion Man, and no one seems too shook up about it.
- This might be the episode of the show I’ve rewatched the most. Pure comfort food to see Zuko cringe his way into Team Avatar.
- “Why am I so bad at being good.”
The Firebending Masters
With Zuko firmly a member of Team Avatar it’s finally high time for Aang to start learning how to firebend. The Avatar has mostly forsworn learning the element, ever since he accidentally burnt Katara in “The Deserter.” It’s a regressive mind set, one that’s keeping Aang from completing the work needed to master all the elements.
He isn’t helped by the fact that Zuko’s firebending also seems to be on the fritz. The normally enveloping blasts are now mere puffs of flame. Sokka isn’t making things easier, giving the two a good ribbing about their jerkbending. Still Zuko has come to a more troubling conclusion, his firebending has been diminished because he switched sides. His rage and motivation for bending has been snuffed out.
Toph makes a suggestion, go back to original animal benders. Like how she learned from badgermoles, Aang and Zuko should learn from the dragons. Zuko’s a bit consternated though, dragons are extinct, so he decides to take Aang to the origins of firebending, the Sun Warrior ruins.
“The Firebending Masters” is a bit of an odd beast of an episode. Its split pretty cleanly between being an okay comedic outing with a bit of an Indiana Jones sheen to moving towards one of the show’s most beautiful moments. I don’t really think it holds those two different parts together, as the tonal disunity and world building feel a little too cluttered, but the true source of firebending is a sight to behold.
There’s fun to be had in Aang and Zuko’s misadventures. The two are forced to work towards a common goal for the first time, and the results are amusing. Aang’s relentless good mood clashing with Zuko’s generally sullen disposition. When the two finally enter the ruins of the Sun Warriors they act more as stooges bumbling around a museum than people actively trying to learn the secret art of firebending. They do get in one good lesson, as they mimic the move’s displayed by some statues, but their progress is hindered when Zuko activates a trap.
The goo trap is an amusing bit of business that is eventually resolved when the Sun Warriors pop up and let our duo free. It’s fine, but I’ve never loved how the Sun Warriors are just kind of hanging around and step out from the shadows for some strangers. The whole thing lands on the touch too contrived side for my liking.
Still the Sun Warriors offer help, and say the two can learn firebending if they can bring a piece of eternal flame to the master Ran and Shaw. Here Zuko must keep his cool to not the fire overwhelm him, and Aang must not be too timid as to let his flame go out. The two approach the caves of the masters, but some last minute second guessing causes Aang to lose his spark. Which in turn causes Zuko to drop focus and lose his flame as well. Looks like the two will have to meet the masters without fire in hand.
That turns out to be a terrifying proposition as Ran and Shaw turn out to be a pair of dragons. Their forms arcing and looping through the sky as they consider Aang and Zuko. In a last minute gambit Aang talks Zuko into doing the moves they learned from the statues, and the two preform a dance with the dragons. Each of their steps mimicked by the lithe and serpentine forms cutting through the sky.
With the form completed Ran and Shaw deem our duo worthy and reveal the secrets of firbending. In a cone of prismatic flame Aang and Zuko see the energy and life and power that exists within the fire. What was once thought to be the element of destruction unfurls as the element being. The fire as energy, as what brings warmth to the world and all those who inhabit it. Fire is an element that can be generated by rage and destruction, but such lessons are limiting to the students.
Thus Aang and Zuko step away from the dragons with a new understand of firebending. Aang no longer afraid of the harm he may cause, and Zuko no longer drawing from his anger to generate his power. It’s a secret that Iroh also learned from the Dragons, and it demonstrates how he has changed over time as well, and how he tried to impart that wisdom to Zuko.
The two return to the temple and demonstrate their abilities, they may be poked at by Sokka, but Aang and Zuko are now bound together by a greater and more fuller understanding of the world.
Odds and Ends
- For those who are coming to the series for the first time it’s hard to overstate how bizarrely the second half of this season was shown. After an extended eight month hiatus filled with episode and plot leaks from all around the internet the last ten episodes were dumped over the course of a week. I of course made the diligent effort to watch live, but this haphazard scheduling was a merely a preview for how the prestige animated shows on cable networks were treated.
- Also please reminisce in my favorite piece of Avatar fandom. This cam recording of the final trailer as it played at Comic-con. Take note of when people cheer: